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Mega Drive Game Design, Part 1

The following is a translation of the first column in a monthly series on game design by Kan Naito (Shining in the Darkness, Landstalker) that appeared in the February 1991 issue of the Japanese magazine Mega Drive Fan. A scan of the original column is posted at the end. See other translations in the series here.

The MD Game Culture Academy

Period 1: Game Design

Instructor: Kan Naito, chief programmer of Shining in the Darkness

Kan Naitō first came into contact with video games during his student years before going on to make numerous titles of his own. Here, he’s going to teach us everything about game design, from the fundamentals to specific techniques, all with a great attention to detail. If you’re interested in making games in the future, please take this course. It will surely be of use. Let’s all aim to be great game designers!

Kan Naito: Born March 23, 1967. He has been obsessed with games since he was a young child, and he has been active as a programmer since beginning high school. He is currently the executive director of Climax.

Lecture 1: How is an RPG made?

I have a feeling that among all of you Mega Drive Fan readers out there, there are quite a few who have a vague interest in getting involved in game development in the future. However, you likely don’t know where to actually get started.

What kinds of people make RPG games, and how do they do it? I will use the fantasy RPG Shining in the Darkness, which we’re currently developing for the Mega Drive, as an example to explain the development process.

By reading this, you should have a considerable resource for finding out what aspect of game development you are best suited for, and where to go from here to get started!

First is the Proposal Meeting

The first thing that occurs in the development of a new game is the proposal meeting. What genre will the game be part of? How will it all be done? Will the gameplay system itself (rather than just the story) be interesting? Does it have a selling point different from other games currently out? Is it actually possible to make the game? And so on.

At this point, it is necessary to have a producer who has created the game proposal and wants to develop the game, a game designer who has thought of the gameplay system, and a programmer. The game designer here can also be thought of as the scenario writer. The reason that a programmer is required at this stage is in order to provide consultation on whether or not the game can realistically be programmed.

Through the proposal meeting, the foundation of the game takes shape. It is important to continue meeting many times until everybody is in agreement.

For the proposal meeting for Shining in the Darkness, Hiroyuki Takahashi, the president of Climax, acted as both producer and game designer, and I, executive director, was in charge of programming.

Using Takahashi’s proposal as a starting point, we met over a period of one month to resolve problems and come up with new ideas.

The Development Plan Meeting and the Staff Members

The next thing after the proposal meeting is the development plan meeting. This meeting is devoted to the specifics of actually turning the game into a commercial product.

If the game is being published by the same company developing it, then this meeting occurs within the same company. However, for us, we took the development plan for Shining in the Darkness directly to Sega and had our development plan meeting there, where we explained the contents of the plan.

If the development plan is approved, then the next step is to decide the staff members who will actually work on development. At Climax, we divide development into specialized roles. There is a limit to how much one person can program, and programmers have their own strengths and weaknesses in different areas. In order to successfully complete a game efficiently and quickly, it is essential to divide roles in this way.

To create a game like an RPG, you need at least one scenario writer. The scenario writer not only comes up with the story and dialogue, but also develops the map layout and the different types of monsters, and sometimes even creates the data for those.

Next, you need four programmers. Overall, one programmer puts together the main program, one creates the battle scenes, one focuses on the different types of dialogue scenes, and one makes the development tools, such as the graphic editor and map editor. Without these four people at the least, it becomes difficult to efficiently do the programming.

You also need several graphic designers. For Shining in the Darkness, we have four. Not only do they draw all of the different types of graphics, but they also plan the overall screen layout and such.

Of course, there are also times when it is necessary to have an illustrator. For Shining in the Darkness, we have one illustrator who is responsible for drawing sketches of the large number of characters.

Finally, there’s the music. You need one composer to compose the music, and one sound programmer to convert the music into data, do arrangements, and make the sound effects.

The above ten-plus people are necessary to develop an RPG. Of course, to make a better game, it is essential to have a large and capable team.

From the Specifications Meeting to the Release

One the staff has been decided, the next thing is to hold a meeting to determine the exact specifications of the game. All of the staff members gather and decide the detailed points related to development. Following that, everybody gets to work on creating the game.

The work of the main programmer is to first allocate the memory. It is no exaggeration to say that programming a game for a ROM cartridge is a battle over memory space. In order to perfectly fit everything, you have to allocate space for each program and for the data.

The development of both the scenario and the programming proceed concurrently. Unlike with a movie, you cannot wait for the scenario to an RPG to be completed before programming begins.

After a lengthy, frustrating period of trial and error, you have a preliminary program that fits in the allocated space. Next, both the regular staff and hired part-time staff playtest the game. At this point, the final balance of the game is decided, the coherence of the scenario is checked, and programming errors are searched for. If a programming bug is found, then the debug process begins in order to isolate the bug.

In order to avoid releasing an unfinished product, the playtest and debug period requires at least one month.

However, being in charge of the programming, I honestly don’t want to have anything to do with the playtesting. I usually already know where bugs are going to occur since I wrote the program myself.

Once the debug process has finished, the master copy is saved and the game is complete.

So, using the example of Shining in the Darkness, that’s how an RPG is made (although Shining in the Darkness isn’t finished yet…).

From next time, I plan to go into more depth on the various roles that I introduced today. Also, if you have any questions or comments about game development, please send them in. I’ll do my best to answer them!

Kan Naito on the Path to the Game Industry, Part 1

In this section, I’m going to introduce the difficult journey full of blood, sweat, and tears that I took to enter the game industry.

For this first part, I’m going to talk about how I first became interested in games. It began when I was a fifth-grader in elementary school. The first game that I played was a block breaking game [e.g. Breakout], which was incredibly popular at the time.

This type of block breaking game served as the origin to Taito’s Arkanoid, and it involved using a ball to destroy blocks that lined the upper half of the screen. There were no special items or power-ups at all. It only involved using the pad to bounce the ball, and in fact its simplicity made the game all the more exciting.

I also played this game at the arcade, but I mostly remember playing it at home. I had a home version that hooked up to the TV.

Following the popularity of block breaking games, the world then moved onto invader games [e.g. Space Invaders]. Of course, I also got caught up in this. Then the video game boom really began, and I started going to the arcade every day. There I encountered a game that would change my life. It’s a game that I’m sure you’re all familiar with: Pac-Man. (to be continued)


Kan Naito’s Favorite Games!

I am completely and totally in love with cars. It goes without saying that anytime there’s an F1 race on, I ignore the urge to sleep and stay up all night watching. Due to that, Mondays are rough for me (I’m half glad that it’s the off season now). After watching one of the urban circuit races, the next day I drive to work like I’ve transformed into Senna (by the way, I drive an NSX).

Because of my love for cars, the game I’ve chosen this time is Super Monaco GP! Even from the eyes of a programmer, it’s clear that this game is incredibly well done. It really seems to push the hardware to its max. I have a feeling that the developers were also race fans. I was so obsessed with it that Climax president Takahashi started to get worried that it was going to have an effect on the development of Shining in the Darkness. The one thing I won’t forgive, however, is the way that the second season Senna look-a-like warps ahead! If not for that, I would give it perfect marks.


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